How to Solve the Air Traffic Controller Shortage

Nearly half of the air traffic controllers in the United States will reach the mandatory retirement age of 56 during the next three years, thus further aggravating an acute shortage of controllers across the country, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

About 7,100 controllers, mostly men, will have to retire by 2012 because in the 1960s it was decided that it's not safe to leave controllers on the job past that age due to the well established cognitive and physical declines associated with normal aging.

But that's poor policy based on outdated information, according to a new study out of the University of Illinois.

The study, published in the current issue of The Journal of Experimental Psychology, found that experience offsets the losses of aging, and, in fact, older controllers were at least as adept as their younger counterparts when it came to managing the most difficult situations that plague the nation's crowded airways.

"The question we posit is can age by itself be a barrier to someone performing a task as complex as air traffic control," Ashley Nunes, lead author of the study, said in a telephone interview. "The simple answer we find is no, within the scope of the age ranges examined, there is little scientific justification for usage of age as a barrier."

Or, as the study concludes: "In the face of age-related declines on basic cognitive abilities, older controllers were able to maintain high levels of performance on a variety of increasingly complex and difficult air traffic control tasks."

Weaker Guys Weeded Out Over Time

The life of a controller is not an easy task, and many wash out early, so "the older guys in many ways tend to be the best guys because they made it through the entire process, and they've lasted all the way to the end," Nunes said. "There's been very little evidence of age-related impairment among older controllers."

The study, sponsored by the National Institute on Aging, was conducted by Nunes as part of his doctoral research in psychology, along with his faculty adviser, Arthur Kramer.

The researchers conducted four experiments, ranging in complexity from two aircraft on a collision course (considered a routine challenge) to managing aircraft through traffic along a designated airspace (a difficult challenge that is similar to how controllers spend much of their time.)

Intellectual Shorthand Compensates for Age Decline

Interestingly, the younger controllers did a little better than the older guys on the routine challenge, but the older controllers performed at least as well, if not better, than their younger counterparts on the more complex challenges.

One reason, the researchers suggest, is that experience equips controllers with sort of an intellectual shorthand, and they can get the job done with fewer demands on both themselves and the pilots.

"There is a greater degree of awareness that is manifested by older controllers as to what they should or should not spend their time on," Nunes said. "They are less eager to act immediately. They are more likely to wait and just watch to see how the situation unfolds. There is a pattern in the mind that has evolved as a function of experiences. It's almost as though they can see four or five steps ahead."

They asked the pilots fewer questions, for example, because experience had taught them what is most likely to come next.

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